Laurence Provost kneels on the sofa, her fingers wrapped delicately yet deliberately over its back edge. The French charter broker peers intently out the Azimut 74's port-side saloon window. Dark, unyielding clouds hover over the towering mountains of southeastern Brazil. There are 365 islands here, each one ringed with rain-drenched beaches. It's been a relentless downpour for four days and nights. With no wind to push them away, the tropical rain clouds are as firmly fixed as an untidy beard on a weathered man's scowling face.
Provost sighs, as we all do, from the cabin fever. She keeps looking, trying to see not just through the window and beyond the dismal gray, but into what we all have come to South America in hopes of seeing: the sunny future of this place.
For about two years now, I've heard charter insiders chattering seriously about Brazil and, in particular, its Angre dos Reis region, which is a little more than a two-hour drive south of the international airport in Rio de Janeiro. As longtime charter clients tire of cruising in the increasingly crowded Caribbean, the industry has been seeking new destinations to offer during the popular December-to-February months. They just happen to be the high season in Brazil, typically a time of warm water, bright sun, and the world-famous Carnival.
The place, in fact, seems tailor-made for charter. All 365 of Angre's islands are within Baa da Ilha Grande—the Bay of Grand Island—as opposed to out in the rougher, open Atlantic. Good restaurants have sprung up, offering dockage and dinner options. The tropical scenery is as lush and memorable as what I've seen in Maui. There are adorable shopping towns like Parati, where you can find everything from fine ceramics to handmade hammocks. And the travel required to get here from the United States or Europe is about the same as it would be for a New Yorker chartering in the Mediterranean or an Italian chartering in the Virgin Islands: about 10 hours' flying time, typically overnight for an early-morning arrival and vacation start.
All of which is why Provost, a handful of international charter brokers, and I have descended here for a reconnaissance cruise onboard the 74-foot Ninna, which is aiming to become the first proper, crewed motoryacht in Brazil. From the moment we stepped onboard, we all shared the question the entire industry is trying to answer: When, exactly, will crewed charter be an option here?
The answer, it seems, is now.
As it turns out, we had the extraordinary experience of being in Angre during what I believe history will remember as its birth as a charter destination.
As with everything involving charter, business begins with the yacht owners. Here in Angre, the bigwigs own 70- to 80-footers. The marinas can't handle anything much larger than 110 feet, and the economy has yet to create the kind of wealth that leads to regular purchases of 150-foot tridecks.
Charter, though, has never been part of the local owners' plans. Unlike in America, where owners see charter as a business opportunity, Brazilians shun the idea, considering it a sign that the owner needs money to keep his yacht.
Owners here don't even use their yachts the way charter clients would, says Ninna's skipper, Martin Buelau, whose native language is the local Portuguese. "The people do not so much want to sleep onboard for many nights," he explains. "They go for a day, to see who else has bought a boat. They do not have crew with training."
Ninna's owner is different. He's a 35-year-old, self-made millionaire who, in the spirit of youth, tends to think differently than his elders. He's considering moving up from his 74-footer to a 110 Azimut, so he's chartering in other parts of the world and, in the process, seeing how the business works. He is willing to cast aside social mores and become the first Brazilian owner to offer his motoryacht—quite proudly—to paying guests.
In his 38-year-old skipper Buelau, Ninna's owner has a kindred mind, a yachtsman who left Brazil in his own younger days to work onboard charter yachts in the Mediterranean, South Pacific, and Fort Lauderdale. Buelau returned to Brazil with a solid command of English, an understanding of the international market, and a desire to show the world how his beloved Angre region can live up to that standard. "The government so far has not made conditions right for chartering," Buelau told me as he drove Ninna toward Ilha Grande, a place he's been boating with his family since he was a child. "In Angre we want to change this situation. We are making the first step here, and we are trying."
They are doing so with help from Regatta, a Brazilian company that is essentially a West Marine and MarineMax rolled into one. Its executives want to introduce local boat owners to bigger yachts, so they hired a Brazilian woman named Luciane Reinbrecht to create a charter division. She previously worked as crew onboard yachts in the South Pacific, a good foundation she built upon by attending charter-yacht shows in the Caribbean. She applied for membership in the professional organization CYBA International, accepted an offer of mentorship from longtime broker June Montagne of Fort Lauderdale-based Northrop & Johnson, enrolled in extensive English courses, and has since booked several Brazilians onboard large charter yachts outside the country.
Now, she is turning her attention to managing Ninna, the first motoryacht in what she hopes will become Regatta's local fleet. She is working to overcome chicken-and-egg problems with things like crew placement (Buelau is the only local skipper she knows who understands charter at all, let alone speaks English), crew training (our meals were tasty and our crew were quite nice, but they were still learning the finer points of formal dinners and cabin service), and charter insurance (the industry doesn't yet exist in Brazil, so insurance companies have to create policies for people like Ninna's owner at Reinbrecht's request).
These kinds of endless, operational details are the stuff that makes charter possible, and with every obstacle they overcome, Buelau, Ninna's owner, and Reinbrecht come closer to charter being a reality in Brazil onboard locally owned, locally flagged, and locally crewed boats, which is all Brazilian law allows in a practical sense. From what I saw—and the international brokers onboard the yacht with me agreed—the effort these individuals are making is exceptionally close to changing the world charter market forever. A few more papers need to be in order, a few more crew need to learn English and service standards, and the yacht needs to be priced to entice. Given the work already done, though, and the attitude and energy these folks are bringing to the cause, these remaining details are hiccups more so than the hurdles they have been in the past.
Charter in Brazil is going to happen, likely in time for this Christmas season, when guests will be able to enjoy the islands I found so enticing during my time cruising among them onboard Ninna with Buelau as a guide.
At first, I admit, I was a bit concerned about visiting the place at all, since Rio de Janeiro, outside its Copacabana resorts, was known to me primarily for kidnappings and violent crime and since there is an outbreak of the potentially fatal yellow fever overtaking the country beyond the city limits. During the entire first hour of my drive on the single road that leads from Rio toward Angre, with my arm still sore from the yellow fever vaccination, I saw nothing but slums. And they sprawled on for miles, far longer than I've seen on any Caribbean island or inner-city stretch of highway anywhere else in the world.
Eventually, though, as with so many charter destinations, the realities of civilization give way to natural beauty and a feeling of safety and calm. Driving into the Angre region is a lot like driving from Athens to the Saronic Gulf Islands just off mainland Greece: You leave the city behind and eventually go up and down mountains that overlook crystal-blue harbors with vacation cottages climbing up the hillsides from the waterfront valleys.
The town of Angre itself is not much worth seeing, but the islands that share its name could sustain a lifetime of cruising, let alone a week's charter. If you are one of the first guests to arrive later this year, go straight to Ninna and cast off. By the time you nap and shower after your long flight and transit, Buelau will have you anchored someplace like the historic Saco de Cu—translated as "Sack of Stars"—a harbor so named because it has reflected the night skies ever since the days when pirates used its geographical terrain to look out for the incoming ships of European explorers.
I felt quite a lot like one of Brazil's first explorers during my time onboard Ninna, peering from the saloon out the rain-fogged glass along with Provost and the other brokers, desperately wishing I could step foot outside and onto the welcome mat that is so carefully being laid out for the world.
Our windows may have stayed closed during this charter, but a door was definitely opened. At last.
Ninna takes six guests with three crew. The weekly, all-inclusive rate was still being set at presstime.
Regatta Yacht Charter
(011) 55 11 5538 3416
This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.